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The Poetry of Anguish

Updated on May 3, 2020
Claudiu Ursu profile image

Graduate of History and Philosophy specialized in Aesthetics, from Romania.


"Life yearns..."

Trying to evoke the sentiment of death, of anguish, is a daunting task for any art form, even more so for poetry. Painting and music can have an immediate effect, one that precedes a translation into words. Of course, after contemplation, their effect upon us can be even more evoking. Poetry relies solely on words, so an initial understanding of the text is required. It’s not enough that the aperture of our soul to be open. The light that comes through it must be filtered.

Words have a syntax, a semantic composition, whereas an image has only the limitations of an artist’s will. It can be bent, twisted, distorted, agglutinated into ferocious constructs but it is still speaking the same language. The Scream (1893) is a figure which is nor man, nor woman. Its figure ripples through the canvas as if trying to mimic the sky. The artist does not indulge in anatomical evidence. On the contrary, we witness destitution of the anatomical in favor of the emotional. Meaning is never lost because the painting can always convey. We recognize the figure as human, as a shadow of ourselves, not by its structure, but by its reaction.

Each poet is like a ferryman, they carry our souls through their words. A poet acts both as Charon and as Vergil. Its innate structure is that of a double agent. Mainly, to carry us and to show as a resolve. The poets and poems that I will consider distance themselves from this attitude. Talking about Georg Trakl and August Stramm, we will find ourselves in Ellison’s "Inferno", of screams missing a mouth.

The themes of Trakl's poems, death, silence, the being's inability to express himself, the night as a revelation of reality, fear, all find an echo in symbolist poetry. Rimbaud, in one of his best-known poems, Asleep in the Valley, creates a frame of dreamlike beauty to contrast it with the violent death of a soldier. Death in the work of the two has a salutary presence, it always presents itself with a placid indifference to the demands of life to be fulfilled. Poe's universe is most authentic when it is located in the host of the night. The night acts here as a relentless agent, it filters the soul from any contingency, preserving only the authenticity of the emotion that the moment evokes.

August Stramm

A scream in search of an echo

The poems of Trakl and Stramm adopt the themes imposed by symbolist poetry. Their mission will be to make transparent those realities that are invisible to the eye. Their work betrays a strong emotional tension, a spirit in a permanent state of anxiety. By focusing on moods, expressionist poets seek to denounce a reality that they feel is oppressive. We know this is due in part to the horrors of war. But the stakes are higher. Expressionist poetry is a cry in search of lost individuality right in the heart of society. This is the major problem that they intend to deal with, more precisely, how is it still possible to express something, what are the limits of our expression, how can one express himself/herself so as not to get lost in the mirage of communication?

An example of this is the poem Melancholy (Schwermut), by August Stramm. Stefán Snævarr tells us that “Actually, this poem is hardly translatable because the poet uses the peculiarities of German language for all it is worthwhile creating a language of his own at the same time. Perhaps moods like depression can only be expressed in a new language, far removed from everyday chitchat. By breaking up the syntax, Stramm hints at the broken down, the chaotic inner world of the sad person."[1] If we look directly at the poem, the proposed comment becomes clear.

Schreiten Streben ----- Striding Striving
Leben sehnt ------------ Life yearns
Schauern Stehen ------------ Shuddering Standing
Blicke suchen ------------ Glances seek
Sterben wachst ------------ Dying grows
Das Kommen --------- The coming
Schreit! -------------- Cries!
Tief ----------------- Deeply
Stummen ----------- Mute
Wir.------------------- We.

The particle "-en" of the word "Stummen" gives it the syntactic peculiarity we were talking about. "Stumm" translates as "mute". An expression of the form "stumm bleiben" would translate as "to be silent / to remain silent". However, Stramm does not use such expressions. Its purpose here is to render an emotional reality. Using a logic of syntax, the volcanic character of emotion is silenced. Thus, the artist tries to reproduce the emotional tension exactly in the way it presents itself to the spirit. In other words, poetry must be faithful to the subject in question. Because of this, the poem seems to have a chaotic character. The longest has only a few words but in this verbal economy, Stramm manages to capture the agony of the man tempted by the loss of all hope. In this universe marked by the expansion of death, the last verse of the poem reminds us that we are the last spectator. It's just that, in such a development, we have irretrievably lost any possibility of expression. Another example of this is the poem Fredenhaus (Pleasurehouse):[2]:

Lichte dirnen aus den Fenstern ------- Lights wanton from the windows

die Seuche ---------------------------------- Contagion

spreitet an der Tur ------------------------- sprawls at the door

und bietet Weiberstohnen aus! ---------- and poses broads-moaning out!

Frauenseelen schamen grelle Lache! ---- Women-souls blush lurid laughter!

Mutterschosse gahnen Kindestod! ------ Motherwombs gape infant death!

Ungeborenes --------------------------------- The Unborn

Geistet ------------------------------------------ vapourly

Dunstelnd --------------------------------------- sprites

durch die Raume! ------------------------------ between the rooms!

Scheu --------------------------------------------- Shy

im Winkel ---------------------------------------- in the nook

schamzerport ----------------------------------- shamedisraged

verkriecht sich ----------------------------------- the genis

das Geschlecht! --------------------------------- shrinks away!

In this poem, Stramm attacks a much more sensitive reality. Sexuality is presented at the beginning as a tool for the selfish satisfaction of pleasures. The laughter of women contrasts with the death of the unborn. Children's souls are condemned to wander in a grotesque show. Stramm repudiates any claim of morality from the poem’s universe. The shrill laughter mocks death itself. Their shame destroys even the innocence of childhood, the haunting spirits handcuffed by a cosmic indifference. There is no man or woman, like in Munch's Scream, we are left with an indeterminate figure. Stramm has no intention of giving man the prospect of happiness after death.

Georg Trakl

To live is to suffer

pecificaTo live is to suffer. Stramm’s sentence is also given by Trakl. For Trakl, as for Poe, the night motif will become even more relevant. In the night man discovers the mysteries of existence, in this setting Trakl can make his thoughts visible. Take for example the poem Der Gewitterabend (Storm Evening)[3]:

O die roten Abendstunden! ------------------- O these glowing evening hours!

Flimmernd schwankt am offenen Fenster --- Vine leaves by the open window

Weinlaub wirr ins Blau gewunden, ------------ sway and shimmer, blue entangled.

Drinnen nisten Angstgespenster. --------------- Indoors ghosts of anguish nestle.

Staub tanzt im Gestank der Gossen. --------- Dust whirls in the stench of gutters.

Klirrend stößt der Wind in Scheiben. --------- Gusts of wind knock at the windows.

Einen Zug von wilden Rossen ------------------ Like a mob of frenzied horses

Blitze grelle Wolken treiben, ---------------------- lurid clouds driven by lightnings.

Laut zerspringt der Weiherspiegel. ----------- Loudly the pond’s surface shatters.

Möwen schrein am Fensterrahmen.----------- Gulls cry at the casement windows.

Feuerreiter sprengt vom Hügel ------------------- Fire-rider downhill thunders

Und zerschellt im Tann zu Flammen. -------- smashed to flames in yonder forest.

Kranke kreischen im Spitale. ----------------------- Shrieks in hospital from patients.

Bläulich schwirrt der Nacht Gefieder. ---------- Bluish the night's feathers whirring.

Glitzernd braust mit einem Male ---------------------- All at once a glistening bluster

Regen auf die Dächer nieder. ----------------------- of the rain upon the housetops.

Trakl creates an apocalyptic setting in this poem. The night sits on a bright, glowing sky also reminiscent of Munch's Scream. In fact, the whole frame is animated by shouts and noises. All of nature is in a state of chaos. The screams of the people in the hospital maintain a symphony in which the whole universe collapses in the form of rain. We notice that the poem maintains an emotional discharge. People, presumed only by the presence of the hospital, are remembered only to maintain the atmosphere. The gulls are screaming too. Night’s wings are low, suggesting a blockage of the human condition through the gaze. He, she or it, who’s wings flutter above us, gaze upon the spectacle with indifference. The wings block an exit from this frame, they force the capitulation of nature. The verdict of the night is total drama, expressed not so much by the suffering of the people, but by the construction with which the third stanza begins. Nature reacts violently because now it is in the servitude of emotion. All reality is being molded by our sentiments. The images that Trakl constructs remind us, from the point of view of their expressiveness, of Munch's paintings. Another example of such poetry is Allerseelen (Day of the Dead)[4]:

Little men, little women, a woeful lot,

Are strewing flowers blue and red today

On their grave-plots turning timorously bright.

They act for death like puppets in a play.


How full of fear and meekness they appear,

How shadows loom behind black bushes! The cry

Of unborn children hangs in the autumn air

And random sun-rays flicker through the sky.


Lovers sigh in the branches. Over there

The mother rots with her child. The reeling dance

Of the living seems unreal, peculiar,

Scattered grotesquely in the evening winds.


Their life is so confused, full of grim woes.

Oh God, have mercy on women’s hell-tortures

And on dirges without any hope, like these.

Still solitaries saunter in the hall of stars.

For reasons regarding space, I have included only the English version of this poem. The theme of death is again present and is supported by the loneliness stated at the end of the poem and by the cries of the unborn. Despair’s existential roots go beyond the limitations of man. As with Stramm, sadness manifests itself in the living as well as in the dead. It, therefore, becomes a central theme of the whole current. A pain that cannot be limited by mere existence. The blue flowers, a symbol of love, desire, contrast with the red ones, an exciting, violent color. The choir, any kind of social gathering, is categorized as a simple chimera, an imaginative product, to strengthen the idea of ​​loneliness.

Schopenhauer demanded that the poet portray the authenticity of life, those Platonic Ideas that lurk behind sensible reality. He saw in the poet's own experience a means to accomplish this. For Trakl, this experience could have been war. The lack of rationality that it entails, the futile death to which man is subjected being trapped in his midst, are the conclusions reached by the poet. Ophelia’s motif is present, but with a specification. It does not apply here only to women, but to all of humanity. Such gender differentiation becomes completely useless. If at the beginning this motif symbolizes the "final act of a tragic existence"[5], for these poets death acquires a value that transcends the simple temporality of the past. The drama it presupposes applies to all the possibilities that a being possesses, hence the cries of the unborn. Thus, death is attributed, through the feeling of sadness, an inescapable permanence. As in Munch, death is no longer a simple stage of life, it is its very framework.


[1] Ulrich Weisstein, Expressionism as an International Literary Phenomenon, p. 42

[2] August Stramm Five poems, translated by Susanne Fiessler


[4] THE POEMS OF GEORG TRAKL Translated by Max Wickert

[5] Ulrich Weisstein, Expressionism As an International Literary Phenomenon, p. 73


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